Questions and Answers

Food system

Production, processing, packaging, distribution, trade and consumption are all activities that are inherent to the food system, a concept that encompasses the food supply chain. As a system, the concept includes governance and food production economics, sustainability in each stage, and the extent of losses or waste as well as to which production and consumption affect the environment.

Food insecurity

Reducing food losses and waste can contribute to fighting food insecurity. Food security is reached when all have physical and economic access to safe, nutritional food, at all times, and in amounts that are enough to have active and healthy lives.

"Although it is a powerful ally, the refrigerator is not the best option to store all vegetables. Some of them can be damaged by the cold. This damage can be apparent, as dark, soft and rot spots appear, or they can be invisible, like changes in flavor or texture that can only be perceived at the time of preparation or consumption".

To learn more, access: Hortaliças na web (Vegetables on the web, content in Portuguese)

Composting food that would be otherwise thrown away reduces the environmental impact of food waste, but does not reduce waste itself. The hierarchy of food waste recovery, elaborated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cites composting as the second least recommended action to deal with food excess. The preferred action is to reduce waste at the source, followed by redirecting excess food to those in need.

Hierarchy to reduce waste

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

What are the consequences of food waste?

Food waste goes beyond the very act of throwing food away. In addition to the loss of nutrients that could nourish those who still face food insecurity, waste has a negative impact on the environment and causes a loss of resources required for production.

Producing food that will not be consumed generates unnecessary carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere. In Australia, for example, food waste is the second largest factor impacting methane emissions. A FAO survey indicates that global food waste is the third largest CO2 emitter, after the United States and China.

The consequences of food disposal go beyond the environmental damages. Waste has an impact on the food security of the most vulnerable populations and on the economic development of low-income countries. If a third of the food produced ends up in the garbage, for instance, consequently a third of the water, energy, and financial resources used in the production will also be wasted.

Food waste increases production costs and generates an unnecessary burden on the environment, as it affects both the biodiversity and the climate and nutrients. Given that the resources required for food production (i.e. land, energy, water and nutrients) are limited in the environment, they must be used efficiently and sustainably. If the developed world wasted less, there would be less pressure on arable lands and biodiversity would be less compromised.

The environmental damage from waste is aggravated according to the stage of the supply chain at which it occurs. Waste at consumption level has higher costs than the one at the initial production and distribution stages, for instance. Thus, waste in mid- and high-income countries creates higher negative impact than in low-income countries, as it is concentrated in the last stage of the chain. At times, the food thrown away in rich countries had to travel around the world to arrive at the consumer's residence.

Another point to consider is that the market as a whole is affected by variations in supply and demand. The 2008 financial crisis, for instance, exemplifies how lower grain production in the United States can raise the price of some commodities, and consequently affect access to food in Subsaharan Africa. Therefore, one can equally deduce that waste takes food that could be available for purchase off of the market, and thus reducing it would contribute to keeping prices stable.

The Brazilian constitution (Federal Constitution of 1988) states that the Union, the states, the Federal District and the municipalities share the power to promote agriculture and cattle breeding, and organize the food supply; protect the environment and to fight pollution in any of its forms; and preserve the forests, fauna and flora (art. 23, VI, VII and VIII).

According to the Legislative Bulletin "Food Waste: socioenvironmental, economic and regulatory issues", there are four legislative bills on the topic proposed by the Senate for enactment, as follows:

- PLS no. 503, of 2015 – by Senator Sandra Braga, institutes incentives for donations of food products, changes Law no. 8,078, of September 11, 1990, which makes provisions on consumer protection, and changes Law no. 9,249, of December 26, 1995, which changes the income tax legislation for corporations, and makes provisions on social contributions on net profit. The first proposed change to the Consumer Defense Code aims to excepcionar the objective risk of food donor companies. The second change, to Law no. 9,249, of December 26, 1995, aims to encourage food donations through tax deductions. The third measure established by the draft aims to imposes penalties on companies that prefer to keep expired products on display for sale instead of donating them in due time;

- PLS nº 672, of 2015 – by Senator Ataídes Oliveira, makes provisions for reducing food waste from establishments such as industries, supermarkets, markets, restaurants, kitchens, fairs, grocers, farmers' markets and the like, with more than 200 square meters of constructed area, which shall, by the maximum period of 6 months after the law comes into effect, sign contracts either with social organizations dedicated to the collection and distribution of food and meals or with companies that produce animal feed and compost; exempting such establishments from civil and criminal liability resulting from damages to beneficiaries caused by the consumption of the donated goods, provided that there is no evidence of deceit or negligence;

- PLS no. 675, of 2015 – by Senator Maria do Carmo Alves,establishes the National Policy to Fight Food Waste, presents aims and instruments for its implementation, and allows food donations, as per regulations;

- PLS no. 738, of 2015 – by Senator Jorge Viana, makes provisions on the fight against voluntarily discarded food waste; expiration dates for sale and safe consumption; consumer awareness campaigns; and on wholesale or retail food establishments whose annual average gross revenue is equal to or higher than small businesses, which will be able to donate to beneficiary social service organizations fresh or cooked industrialized foodstuffs that are either within their expiration date but, for any reason, have lost trade conditions, or past their expiration date, provided that they are still in good condition and within the period for safe consumption. Such PLS changes several statutes, including Decree no. 986, of October 21, which institutes basic regulations on food so as to determine food donation and reuse in Brazil.

The challenge requires technological changes in food production, storage, processing, distribution, access and consumption, as well as changes in consumer habits. An alternative to increase food supply without necessarily increasing the agricultural production area, is the implementation of actions to reduce losses and waste that occur at different stages of production, starting with pre- and post-harvest practices, through processing, packaging, and trade until consumption. Appropriate harvesting, adequate handling, correct packaging, use of the cold chain, suitable transportation, well-paved roads, adjusted distribution logistics, correct storage, appropriate legislation, and change in consumer behavior are some of the necessary items to reduce food loss and food waste.

So far, publicized figures have been inaccurate and generically estimated, as there is no standard methodology to assess and quantify food loss and food waste. Brazil still does not have precise data based on national surveys. It is not possible to generalize. Estimates depend on countless factors, such as year of data collection, time of the year (rainy or dry season), type of product assessed, sampled cultivar, technological level of surveyed farmers, potential use of byproducts, use in animal feed, composting, among others, which make such estimates isolated and fit for each study case.

While Brazil still faces high post-harvest losses, there is also an elevated level of waste at the end of the chain. The evidence suggests that Brazil is a country that mixes characteristics of developing countries (e.g. the losses within rural properties and production outflow) with rich country-like consumer behavior, characterized by the high rate of food disposal at the end of the chain.

According to FAO's report, 54% of world food losses occur at the initial production stage – handling, post-harvest and storage. The remaining 46% happen at the processing, distribution and consumption stages. The products that are lost in the course of the production process vary from one region to another.